Net Zero and Urban Sustainability: The future really is green

This blog is part of our Net Zero series for World Green Building Week 2017 – read more here.

I’ve taken the name “World Green Building Week” a little more literally than most. All too often our urban spaces are at odds with the natural environment; masses of steel and concrete trying to control and contain the elements. However, increasingly planners and policymakers are waking up to the benefits of incorporating vegetation into our towns and cities, urban sustainability is a trend I fully expect to accelerate in the coming years.

It is an adage as old as civilisation that mankind should seek to ‘dominate’ over nature, and this insistence on control is reflected in the design of our urban environments. This persistent societal axiom has almost certainly contributed to the incredible rate of human technological advancement over the last few centuries, and has resulted in some engineering feats that are nothing short of remarkable, but we shouldn’t forget that nature’s R&D department has had an extra couple of billion years to perfect the art of living on Earth.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Increasingly planners and policymakers are waking up to benefits of incorporating vegetation into towns and cities” quote=”Increasingly planners and policymakers are waking up to the benefits of incorporating vegetation into our towns and cities”]

Take the Amazon Rainforest as an example. It is essentially able to completely to self-regulate its internal conditions, it recycles resources in situ again and again and again, and it has survived millions of years of ice age and El Nino cycles, all the while developing into the most biodiverse ecosystem on Earth. Such longevity is testament to its ability to both adapt to long-term change and to deal with major exogenous shocks; it is the ultimate display of sustainability.

Incorporating sustainability into urban environments

Whilst I’ll admit that the Amazon is far from ideal for human occupation, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from nature, and opportunities to incorporate its sustainability strategies into our urban environments. Some of the major ecosystem services that vegetation can provide include:

1.     Drainage & Flood Prevention

Sealed surfaces such as roads and buildings increase the speed and volume of runoff during precipitation events, increasing the likelihood of disruption due to flooding. Having vegetation present means that some rainwater is caught in plant canopies, before either evaporating away or dripping more gradually to the ground, thereby alleviating some of the ‘shock’ of flooding. Meanwhile, unlike tarmac, the soil in which plants sit will usually be permeable, allowing water to soak into the ground.

2.     Building Energy Usage Reductions

Trees can provide shade in summer, whilst blocking cold winds in winter, so their careful placement can reduce energy consumption for nearby buildings. Meanwhile, green roofs and green walls can act as a kind of makeshift insulation, reducing the energy required for internal temperature regulation.

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3.     Reduced Urban Heat Island Effect

As mentioned, vegetation can help cool in situ by providing shade, but it can also help cool whole urban areas by removing heat through the process of evapotranspiration. The albedo of vegetation is also lower than dark surfaces such as tarmac, meaning more energy from the Sun is reflected rather than absorbed.

4.     Improved Air Quality

Via photosynthesis, plants can be used to take up some of the carbon dioxide produced by our cars and factories. They can also absorb other gaseous pollutants and some solid pollutants, as well as acting as retention sites for impermeable particles. The extent of air quality benefits from urban vegetation is still debated, and depends a lot on a number of variables including building structure, vegetation structure, vegetation type, pollutant type, and pollutant levels.

5.     Wellbeing Benefits

Research exists that suggests that access to nature can help improve concentration, alleviate stress, and generally improve the psychological condition of those exposed. Even just having plants in and around the workplace seems to be sufficient to carry at least some psychological benefit.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Even just having plants in the workplace seems to be sufficient to carry at least some psychological benefit.” quote=”Even just having plants in and around the workplace seems to be sufficient to carry at least some psychological benefit.”]

6.     Aesthetics

Maybe it’s just me, but I think plants look pretty. The green wall on the side of the Rubens at the Palace Hotel in London is definitely worth a look, being both innovative in design and spectacular to look at.

Perhaps even more telling than the long list of benefits, is the seemingly short list of downsides to incorporating vegetation into urban spaces.

So what are the downsides?

The key issue for most places will be to do with space, which is a finite and valuable resource in modern cities. However, from rooftop gardens to green walls, people are finding new and innovative ways to integrate vegetation into even the densest urban areas, and I believe that all cities have measures available to them for improving their utilisation of available space if local governments, planners, building owners, and tenants are willing to innovate.

Other issues include the cost associated with the maintenance of vegetation, and the minor risk of damage from falling trees. However, personally I view these as minor prices to pay compared to the potential benefits that are on offer.

In conclusion, for any problem we create in our modern urban environments, nature usually has a solution. We only have to be willing to find ways to integrate it, then we can just let it help us out.

Healthy Buildings Are Here to Stay

This post is authored by Dr. Paul Toyne, and it originally appeared on the Building4Change website. It has been reposted here with permission.

Good engagement, a strong business case backed up by data and a sense of shared responsibility were all on show at the Healthy Buildings conferences, suggesting health and wellbeing is not just a fad.

Earlier this month I chaired the Healthy Buildings conference which explored ways to improve health and wellbeing in existing commercial properties. Organised by BRE in partnership with EVORA, the day featured a stellar cast of expert speakers who spoke to a packed audience at ARUP’s London HQ.

The programme gave a platform to developers, landlords, architects, building services engineers, fit-out contractors, as well as occupiers, with detailed specifics on biophilic design, indoor air quality, thermal comfort, acoustics, water and thermal comfort. There were lots of fascinating presentations – more than I can do it justice to here. Instead, I will share my three main observations of the day.

Health and wellbeing (H&W) resonates with people on many different levels

I was struck by the high level of audience participation and how most people stayed until the end of the day, rather than leave after the lunch as is often the case at conferences. Why is this? Because in my view the H&W agenda resonates with people, engaging them on many levels, be it technical or emotional; H&W is a global trend that is not likely to go away. And rightly so, because who is not interested in their own wellbeing while working in an office and the impact that an office environment can have? Another subject of interest to the audience environment professionals was being able to understand their role in the value chain that provides these improvements – be it through design, product innovation or behavioural change. This I hope bodes well for wider adoption of H&W solutions.

Business case evidence for H&W is strong and expectations will increase

The day demonstrated the strong evidence that shows clearly the benefits of a healthy building for office occupants and how that translates to commercial benefits for employers and the landlord. It is stating the obvious that no-one wants to design and operate unhealthy buildings, but knowing what elements are essential to H&W and measuring their positive impacts is necessary to convince those who are solely influenced by the bottom line. Various speakers made reference to an array of studies that demonstrate just that. There is no longer the argument that the data is lacking or not market specific enough. Furthermore, I believe that it will be important for commercial office developers and landlords to act and demonstrate how they are improving their stock to their customers to protect their brand and reputation and their market share.

Collaboration and shared responsibility is driving the agenda

Finally, it was clear throughout the day how delegates and speakers felt a shared sense of responsibility for delivering better buildings and a genuine show of collaboration between developers, building managers and the occupiers to achieve this. Landlords and developers were acknowledging their responsibility, arguing that H&W was more than just the building but extended to improving the public realm. What, for example, is the point of improving indoor air quality if the moment you go out of the building for a break or for your commute, you are hit with air pollution. Developers talked about creating the right social infrastructure both within and outside the building, dealing with not just environmental concerns but social concerns such as homelessness. Throughout the day examples were given on how the different stakeholders were working proactively together and with their supply chains to deliver H&W outcomes.

So what does this all mean?

All this suggests that H&W is not a fad or a trend that will go away in a few months. If you consider it as a global trend, covering lifestyles, diet, exercise and technology to monitor performance, then there is no reason to exclude buildings from being part of the mix. Next time you are in your office ask yourself are you in a healthy building? If you don’t know the answer ask your landlord and soon you will open up a discussion that can only lead to better buildings. That is after all the goal we all want.

Watch all the presentations on the BRE Conferences YouTube channel.


Dr Paul Toyne is an independent adviser on the sustainable built environment and professional chair of conferences and events. Find out more about him on or follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_Toyne.

To talk to us about improving health and wellbeing in your commercial properties, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Health and Wellbeing – The Next ‘Sustainability’?

As a society, more and more of us are adopting city lifestyles and increasingly spending a greater proportion of our time inside (an estimated 90% of our day inside buildings), without thinking too much about how we interact with those buildings and vice-versa.

Along comes the concept of ‘health and wellbeing.’ A phrase that initially sounds insubstantial to most, but has been established by a rush of recent research discussing the benefits it can bring to building occupiers. With the likes of GRESB, UKGBC, WELL conducting research, quantifying and discussing health and wellbeing, this looks to be the next big topic grabbing business’ attention. We look to see where the value lies in businesses adopting health and wellbeing, or whether this is just the next hollow buzzword across the industry.

So, what does this all mean? Health and wellbeing revolves around two basic principles:

  • Altering building aspects (e.g. daylight, air quality, thermal control community space) for a more productive work environment. Shown in Figure 1 as the ‘physiological’ factors, altering the ways which our body reacts to the environment it is in.
  • The incorporation of operational schemes into working environments (flexible working, learning opportunities). The ‘psychological’ aspects, those that affect our mental attitude in the working environment.

The case for Health and Wellbeing

1. Financial Value

One of the main arguments in favour of the concept is the general acceptance that most of us are more productive working in well-lit, thermally comfortable offices with good air quality as opposed to dark, dingy spaces – with this improved workspace encouraging the greater productivity of staff and, in turn, generating greater returns from staff.

With staff costs typically accounting for around 90% of overall operating costs (Figure 2 below), maintaining employee productivity through health and wellbeing measures can provide substantial monetary value for all businesses, regardless of size.

2. Health and Welfare

Perhaps a fairly obvious point to most of us, but the correlation between health and happiness is an aspect that should not be overlooked for the value it can bring to businesses. Healthier staff are typically associated with lower levels of absenteeism, deductions in sickness leave and higher retention levels in the jobs/buildings which enhance this (PwC UK, 2008).

3. Attract Talent and Business

This is more of a long-term influence. While improvements can be made to the satisfaction levels and retention of current employees and tenants, aspects such as the incorporation of community space, ergonomic work spaces and transport links (which are all associated as health and wellbeing metrics) are also considered as attractive ‘pull factors’ for work environments – attracting new staff and clients to businesses/buildings.


While research into health and wellbeing metrics is increasingly conducted, criticism arises in the lack of tangible ways to measure the progress of improvement measures put into place. While building aspects provide an easier method of measurement (for example, air quality samples can be regularly taken with IAQ meters); operational schemes, such as additional community space, are not so easily measured.

And so comes the introduction of the WELL Standard. A scheme developed by Delos, after 7 years of research, to add a measure, best practice and a benchmark to the concept. The standard is lengthy – 238 pages – covering the seven core aspects of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. While the adoption of the WELL Standard has been slow in the UK, with only 4 registered WELL projects, its outlook to provide a measurement to this increasingly discussed topic will undoubtedly see that is acts as a major player in this growing field.

Who are the real drivers?

With a number of benefits being thrown around by many, excitement is growing for this new up-and-coming trend – but where is this excitement coming from? Health and wellbeing is a principle that is driven by and for building occupiers and, with many occupants never giving any thought to the concept before, it could be that the missing link to this all is engagement with tenants throughout the process.

To date, health and wellbeing is typically only driven through large institutions, who generally view the trend as another way to differentiate the services they provide. This raises questions to the practical relevance of health and wellbeing – if changes in associated aspects/schemes will be relevant across a multitude of building dynamics and to SME’s, as well as large institutions.

Looking ahead…

At present, health and well-being is held back by a number of questions surrounding the tangible ways to measure and monitor attributed aspects and the practical relevance of the trend. While aspects such as access to exercise and the abundance of community space are consistently mentioned as key attributes to consider for health and well-being improvements, the psychological improvements which these bring to individuals are hard to monitor progress on. Buildings are also extremely dynamic, adding further complications in the lack of a ‘one model fits all’ approach.

Ultimately, the key issue continues to be – who is health and wellbeing for? Is this truly a no-brainer that all institutions should incorporate or is this just another case of an emerging buzzword with little substance? However important, health and wellbeing is an emerging trend throughout the industry that should not be ignored in passing and one which EVORA will continue to engage with, through our consultancy and market-leading sustainability software SIERA.

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If you have any questions about Health and Wellbeing, SIERA, or any other topics mentioned in this blog, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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